Courts are a new front line of climate action with cases against governments and oil firms spiralling, and while victories have so far been rare the pressure for change is growing
Tue 20 Mar 2018
Global moves to tackle climate change through lawsuits are poised to break new ground this week, as groups and individuals seek to hold governments and companies accountable for the damage they are causing.
On Tuesday, action by 12 UK citizens reaches the high court for the first time, while on Wednesday in San Francisco, the science of climate change will effectively be on trial at a key moment in a lawsuit.
The litigation represents a new front of climate action, with citizens aiming to force stronger moves to cut carbon emissions, and win damages to pay the costs of dealing with the impacts of warming.
They are inspired by momentous cases from the past, from the defeat of big tobacco to the racial desegregation of schools in the US. Big oil is fighting back hard, but though victories have been rare to date wins are more likely in future, as legal experts say the attitudes of judges often shift with the times.
A flurry of billion-dollar cases against fossil fuel companies brought by New York city and communities in California over the rising seas has pushed climate litigation into the limelight. But cases are being brought across the globe, with more than 1,000 suits now logged by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia law school in New York.
Richmond, California – home to a Chevron oil refinery – has filed a lawsuit against 29 fossil fuel companies to seek damages. Photograph: Getty Images The UK government is now facing its first major climate change lawsuit, brought by 12 citizens through a legal group called Plan B and which already has the support of the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir David King.
“The UK carbon target for 2050 does not match the Paris agreement goal and the government knows that,” says Tim Crosland, a barrister at Plan B. He says the purpose of the case is to make the government live up to its responsibilities: “It is about closing the accountability deficit which is one of the biggest problems with climate change – if everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible.”
The UK has had climate laws in place for a decade and is seen by some as a leading nation, but Crosland argues the great dangers of global warming make this irrelevant. “Either we don’t want to fall off the climate cliff edge or we do. Who is doing better than others is the wrong question.”
On Wednesday meanwhile, a landmark case in California, in which the cities of San Francisco and Oakland are suing major oil companies for damages, reaches an unprecedented moment with a day-long hearing on the science of climate change itself.
Further cases are under way from India to Uganda, and across Europe including the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Portugal and Norway, where campaigners are seeking to block oil drilling in the Arctic. In Colombia, 25 young plaintiffs are taking to the courts to halt deforestation.